The Zero Theorem (2014)

Dir. Terry Gilliam

What’s it all about, then? When it’s all said and done, does it add up to anything? In Terry Gilliam’s new film, The Zero Theorem, a broken “entity cruncher” - a futuristic version of a data-cruncher - is tapped by Management (Matt Damon with Roger Sterling hair) to prove that human existence can be formulated to add up to… yes, zero. Ironically, the film itself has trouble adding up its parts, some of which are fantastic while others are real patience testers, into a satisfying sum.

Christoph Waltz plays Qohen, the anxiety and phobia ridden, yet highly productive office drone who wants nothing more than to stay at home and await a phone call that he believes will give his life meaning. If Waltz has given a bad performance, I have yet to come across it. He’s given plenty to work with here - a whole buffet of nervous tics and an appealingly odd manner of speaking. His performance, along with some of Terry Gilliam’s trademark stunning design and camera work, is the real attraction here.

It isn’t unusual for a Gilliam film to take some time getting off the ground (Baron Munchausen is a prime example) but The Zero Theorem is especially difficult to adjust to. And this is coming from a big-time Gilliam lover. The film has been called a closing chapter of sorts to an “Orwellian Trilogy” that began with Brazil and 12 Monkeys. And like those films, this futuristic landscape is claustrophobically filled with plasticy clothing, bad hair, tiny and unruly cars, probing closed circuit cameras, menacing advertisements and near indecipherable jargon being spout from computers and people in power. But unlike the previous two films, this land is candy colored rather than the drab, communistic pallet Gilliam used to oppress his heroes into submission. It’s not a bad idea as it is successfully off-putting to both Qohen and the viewer and it makes Qohen’s retreats to his gorgeous, dilapidated church/home all the more relieving but visually, and script-wise, the first portion of the film frustratingly felt like someone else’s flubbed attempt at a Gilliam-esque aesthetic.

Things fair better in the second half of the film when Qohen shuts himself in the church and sets to work on proving the theorem - taking breaks to talk with his virtual psychiatrist, played by a mousy Tilda Swinton (once again, nearly unrecognizable). The theory naturally proves to be impossible to formulate and the task begins to unravel Qohen even further. To help alleviate his situation, his supervisor (David Thewlis, always welcome) sends him a call-girl of sorts - ostensibly to keep him from becoming useless to work on the theorem but, as these things tend to happen in films, love begins to creep in. Actress Melanie Thierry does a fine job in a very thinly written role and makes it, ah, easy to understand Qohen’s attraction. I should mention, to the writer’s credit - this typical relationship doesn’t exactly go the usual route. Management’s son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), a tech wizard in his own right, is eventually sent into the church as well in order to keep Qohen on track but Bob is a bit of an X factor and both of these new presences in Qohen’s life begin to open him up to life and backfiring on Management’s intentions to keep him a productive employee.

There are more than a few grand Gilliam flourishes - the main church setting is a marvel of both visual and sound design - that will appeal to fans and the script (by first-timer Pat Rushin, who even used Brazil as a template) has its own moments of thoughtful, existential dilemmas though most of them are never fully realized in any satisfying way. Granted, the film is, in its own way, asking the BIG questions - and the majority of movies out there aren’t even bothering with asking, nevermind trying to respond to them which is why I tend to have a soft spot for these kinds of ambitious misfires - but sadly, The Zero Theorem seems only half-interested in coming up with any new answers. There may be a larger problem at hand with already knowing how Terry Gilliam is going to answer the big questions but, really, that’s an issue for the fans to deal with and as a fully vested representative, I’m more than happy to for as long as Mr. Gilliam wishes.